William Patrick Corgan – Ogilala [2017]

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Things haven’t been too great for Billy Corgan the past few years. The Smashing Pumpkins auteur has found himself embroiled in a number of embarrassing spectacles and creative flunks, and has seemed to be lost for years now. The proof of that came most strikingly with his 2014 release under the Pumpkins banner, Monuments to an Elegy. This was an album that showcased a musician stuck between giving his fans the sound they wanted, yet who was also desperately trying to shoehorn his current musical ambitions into. The result was a strange amalgamation of classic Pumpkins guitarwork, fused with puzzling new age synths and lyrics that would be more apt coming from a 12-year-old boy than a 46-year-old man. Suffice to say, when he announced that he would be releasing a new solo album after a 12-year gap, I had virtually nonexistent expectations – this was a man who was lying to himself musically for years and seemed completely without a rudder, what would change now?

What’s changed is immediately apparent from the first piano chords of “Zowie”, the album’s first track. Here, Corgan has stripped away everything but the bare necessities, opting for something more akin to a singer-songwriter approach than the in-your-face maximalism that was the Pumpkins’ bread and butter for so long. This track (and the album at large) is carried solely by Corgan’s gentle, melancholy piano strains and a restrained, refined vocal performance. Where he once might have layered three or four tracks of vocals on any given song, he has nothing to hide behind here – his voice is raw and exposed, perhaps putting greater pressure on himself to truly deliver. And where his voice was once full of grit, rage, snark, and sneer, on Ogilala the overriding emotion is love, exploration, acceptance, and hope. He’s no longer belting out his pain towards anyone who will listen: instead, he sounds at peace, writing these songs as much for himself as for anyone else.

However, sometimes this bare-bones approach shoots the album in the foot. While there’s nothing as outright clunky or cringe-worthy as “Run2Me” or “Anaise!”, at times it feels fairly one dimensional, with one song flowing into the next without much to differentiate it. There ARE a few moments that break up the flow and add color to the proceedings, like the yearning strings behind Corgan’s earnest vocals on “Aeronaut”. And then there’s James Iha’s shocking turn on guitar for the track “Processional”, marking the first time the pair have recorded music together since 2000’s Machina. But overall, Ogilala’s palette could have used a little expanding, as several of these songs feel more underwritten than stripped down.

But despite Ogilala’s faults, this album represents a marked return to form for a musician that has been lost for a long while now, and it presents perhaps his most honest and humble songwriting in his entire career (or at the very least, this second stage of it). He is no longer grappling with what side of himself to present to the world: It is just William Patrick Corgan, for better and for worse – stripped of anger and overwrought ambition, more at peace with himself than ever before, and making music that seems to truly strike a chord inside himself. It’s a step in the right direction, and for the first time since the Pumpkins reformed in 2005, it feels like the man is genuinely inspired. Ogilala might be more quiet, meditative, and sedate than any of his prior work, but in this case, that’s a good thing.

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Smashing Pumpkins – Monuments to an Elegy (2014)

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Smashing Pumpkins’ – or Billy Corgan’s, however you want to put it – newest album, Monuments to an Elegy is the next part in the drawn out Teargarden by Kaleidyscope saga. Since 2009, Corgan has been releasing individual songs and entire albums under this theme, and he aims to conclude it next year with the next Pumpkins disc, Day for Night. All of the music under the Teargarden banner has been marked by Billy’s heavy experimentation with synthesizers and flowery subject matter, which obviously makes this material a very far cry from his “the world is a vampire” days. At times, though, he’s touched upon the Pumpkins’ former glory with it, most consistently on 2012’s Oceania (which balanced the heavy synth with heaping slabs of the band’s trademark fuzz).

However, Monuments to an Elegy comes up a lot shorter than it’s predecessor, both literally and figuratively. It’s run time is barely longer than that of most EPs, clocking in at 33 minutes with 9 songs. That means there’s no grand ‘Silverfuck’ or ‘Thru the Eyes of Ruby’ style epics here, or even the exploratory ‘Oceania’; the songs are short and sweet with predictable verse-chorus-verse structures. Figuratively, Monuments also finds Corgan dipping back into the synth-as-a-lead-instrument style that defined the early songs in the Teargarden cycle, for the worst. Almost all of the nine tracks here are either lead by, or feature prominent synth use – which would be all well and good, if most of them didn’t sound straight off of a New Age easy-listening CD. It comes off as painfully cheesy in the most un-ironic of ways, and it isn’t helped by Corgan’s absolutely dreadful lyrics. Besides clunkers like “Never been kissed by a girl like you/All I wanna, I wanna do/Love me baby, love me true/Oooh” and “alright alright/everywhere I go is shining bright”, you could literally die from alcohol poisoning if you drank every time he mentioned some variation of the word ‘love’ or ‘lover’.

But Corgan’s songwriting is so strong that, every once in a while, it does overpower even his most misguided tendencies. “One and All (We Are)” feels and sounds like a cut off of Mellon Collie, partly because it actually has roots in unfinished the Mellon Collie-era outtake ‘The Viper’. Grinding along with thick buzzsaw guitars and an angry inflection Corgan’s voice hasn’t held in years (and completely free of the cursed mini Moog), it’s a true dyed-in-the-wool Pumpkins song that reminds us of what he was once capable of. The prog-tinged ‘Tiberius’ manages the balance Oceania struck by successfully mixing a bright synth line with huge chugging chords, segueing into a heavier breakdown and back with ease. And the album’s lead single, ‘Being Beige’, has grown on me by leaps and bounds, bringing with it an Adore-influenced sound and gentle pop melodies.

I don’t fault Corgan for trying to explore new sounds and territories with his music, but he’s been mining this Synthing Pumpkins sound for five years now, and it’s seriously both wearing out its welcome and hurting his songs. The man who followed up one of the biggest double albums in music history with an understated gothic pop record is stuck in a rut, despite all of his grandstanding to the contrary. Monuments sounds deeply confused and flawed, jumping back and forth between guitar-driven rockers and new-agey synth and lyrics, rarely ever congealing into something cohesive. Ever since Corgan reformed the Pumpkins in 2006, he’s been struggling to find a sound for them that’s both relevant and in line with their past, and for all this trouble, he’s lost sight of what really matters – good songs. It’s a shame to see one of the ’90s greatest songwriters so mired in mediocrity, but at least at the end of the day we still wind up with a great song every now and then. That’s probably all we can ask for anymore.

Key Tracks: One and All (We Are), Tiberius, Being Beige